For AWS product manager Jay Maglione, the challenges of 2020 mean we must rethink creative studio norms and look to the cloud for the next workflow evolution.
2020 has been an exceptionally challenging year across industries, and digital content production is no exception. To enable artists to continue working on projects from home, visual effects and animation studios had to alter highly secure workflows and pipelines to allow what it was built to prevent: content from leaving the facility. And they had to do it fast to keep deliveries on track, or at least as close to on track as possible. Studio pipeline teams have gone to great lengths to achieve this, showing remarkable ingenuity in their approaches. If there’s anything we’ve learned in the first half of the year, it’s to expect the unexpected. One way we can prepare for this is to rethink creative studio norms and consider how our present-day circumstances and learnings can inspire the next gen facility.
It’s no secret that VFX and animation can be fickle industries. Boom/bust cycles come with the territory and margins are notoriously thin. Still, new artists join the ranks, excited by the creativity of the craft and exhilarated to see their work on screen. Whether cleaning up shots or creating a full CG creature and everything in between, these talented artists have been helping drive up the visual standards of entertainment across media and platforms to our binge-watching delight. Considering all this progress in terms of visuals realized, little has fundamentally changed under the hood, so to speak. That’s not to say that there haven’t been some incredible advancements. Off-the-shelf software tools are constantly evolving to support emerging resolutions and formats; highly collaborative open source initiatives are prompting innovative new workflows; and real-time game engines are helping creators turn LED screens into a galaxy far away.
All these applications, however, rely on some form of compute power -- workstations at the artists’ feet, and storage and render nodes in a highly juiced server room. Herein lies the challenge, as hardware can be expensive to purchase, house, and maintain; ages quickly; and is finite in capacity. Increasingly we’re seeing facilities start to embrace the cloud to quickly scale compute resources, whether a hybrid or all-in approach. It provides the flexibility to spin up and down during peaks, and can mean the difference between hitting or missing deadlines.
Established studios typically have legacy infrastructure in place, so a hybrid approach to cloud rendering allows them to continue amortizing their investment, but scale as needed. Once running on the cloud, studios often find benefits in spinning up virtual workstations to quickly on-board artists and access the already available data in the cloud. Artists spend more time editing, tweaking, and iterating on their tasks rather than waiting for the data to transfer from the cloud back to their local network. These components – workstations and rendering, combined with cloud storage, create a full cloud-based studio pipeline, which is where the concept of next gen studios starts to get exciting.
If you’ve been to SIGGRAPH in the last ten years, you’ve heard the buzz around cloud and how it’s going to transform media and entertainment with its agility and scalability. So far, it’s lived up to that promise, slowly and steadily, as cloud providers assemble specialized computing resources tailored for content production, internet speeds continuously improve, and people become increasingly more comfortable with it and working in a cloud-native way. Now, more studios are opting to skip the physical procurement part of the getting started phase and instead are building their infrastructure on the cloud. Untold Studios became the first fully cloud-based creative studio in late 2018 and others have followed suit.
Being entirely cloud-based means that artists can work remotely, securely, and with a well-resourced workstation using only the internet and a connected device. Building on the cloud certainly seems like the smartest path when building a pipeline from scratch or replacing aged-out gear, but it can be challenging to go at it alone. Fortunately, you should be able to lean on your cloud provider for help and guidance, especially when their support teams come from the VFX and animation world, though I wouldn’t say on-boarding to the cloud is plug-and-play, at least not yet. Once the industry gets to this point, it’s going to be a game-changer, not just in how studios create content but who’s able to access high end pipelines.
Sometimes you’ll hear artists refer to creating a particularly challenging shot as building a car while driving it. In some ways, that’s where we’re at with the cloud in content production. There are lots of people testing and starting to implement full or hybrid cloud workflows, many of them quite successfully, but even the experts have more to learn. I think we’ll be seeing a lot of continued innovation in the space in the coming year, if not sooner. Studios have faced entirely new challenges in the first half of 2020 as have the technology providers that support them. The next workflow evolution will undoubtedly bring all the cloud-based pieces closer together, and with understandable and predictable pricing to transform the artistic and studio experience. For studios that don’t already have a cloud migration plan in place, I expect they will within about three years as the way data is managed changes.